At 6 ft. 7 in., Terry Jones towers over most of us, and in more ways than one. This ambitious Williamsburg, IA, farmer has literally made his living seizing opportunities that many in agriculture wouldn’t give a second glance.
Growing up on a family farm, it was his dream to keep farming. “It’s all I ever wanted to do,” he says.
So after taking advantage of a football scholarship at the University of South Dakota and obtaining a business finance degree, it was back to the farm in 1983.
The story unfolds from here where today he operates farms in Iowa, Oklahoma, Arkansas and even much farther south – Brazil. Plus, he helps dozens of farmers increase their profits as a consultant and partner with Moe Russell in Russell Consulting Group (RCG). (Moe Russell is the risk management editor for Corn & Soybean Digest and has a column in the Profits section of each issue. His column is on page 36 of the August 2010 issue.) On top of that he also runs an elevator and trucking business. The wheels never stop turning.
Jones first met Russell soon after he began farming when he borrowed money from Farm Credit Systems, where Russell was a lender. In 1998 they formed RCG, a risk-management and business-planning service.
“I’d been friends with Moe since 1983 and we had a good working relationship,” says Jones. “We talked about a partnership where Moe would handle the finance side and I’d work with marketing. We thought we’d have a unique business.
“Our goal was to have 100 clients in three years, but we hit that number after just nine months. And today, we’ve added 30 associates and offer services in almost 30 states,” he says.
“Terry is incredibly customer-service focused and does what he says he’ll do,” says Russell, partner and president of RCG. “He brings tremendous credibility to our business because he’s a farmer and also has entrepreneurial skills. What an asset.”
But working with RCG is just a part of Jones’ day, which typically begins at 5:30 a.m. when he starts pouring over the overnight market trades. Then it’s on to a series of 30-min. conference calls with clients and finally the daily check-in with his brother Eric to keep tabs on all the day-to-day business operations.
“When I started farming my goal was to increase profits by $100,000 every year,” Jones says. “Also, I made a rule that every farm and enterprise has to pay for itself.”
For example, he and Eric – who handles the production side – now crop farm together, but in the 1990s they were also in the cattle-feeding and cow-calf business.
“When we got out of the cattle business, we took the profits and invested in a failing local grain elevator business,” he explains. “We were going to use it just for personal use, but when local farmers heard it wasn’t closing, they wanted to do business with us. That was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up, and now we’ve converted our cattle business into a grain-hauling business.”
Originally, the grain elevator they bought in 2001 had a 400,000-bu. capacity. Today, they have elevators in three locations and a total of 2 million bushels of storage.
In 2006 Jones bought an old Pioneer plant for farm use in Marengo, IA, and it’s now where he offices. It was a perfect fit because he’s been a large Pioneer farmer-dealer since 1986. “I’d meet with farmers to sell seed and wind up spending more time talking about marketing than seed.
“I guess I just have an entrepreneur side to me,” he admits. “I like to put deals together and I like to make money. I like to take advantage of opportunities and I especially like hiring good people. They almost become family to me.”
Jones employs about 15 full-time and 25 part-time employees, plus truck drivers, in his Iowa operations.
He and his family now farm 6,000 acres in five Iowa counties. Plus, three years ago he and seven investors bought 3,500 acres in Oklahoma and Arkansas that are custom-farmed; Jones handles the management. They plant corn, soybeans and wheat there.
The investor model idea was hatched about five years ago, though, when Jones made a big leap and brought 79 investors together to buy 74,000 acres in Tocantins, Brazil, a state in the central part of the country. Two native Brazilians and also investors manage that operation with oversight from Harvest Capital, where Jones is a partner. Jones travels there at least once a year to check on the business.
“When it’s all done, we’ll have 49,000 tillable acres there that are flood irrigated,” he says. “It’s very flat so we plant rice for domestic use in the wet season. Then in the offseason (April to October) we plant seed beans for seed companies.
“We’re planting soybeans there at about the same time we are here in Iowa. It all works well for us when the real (currency) is strong, and it’s a good business hedge by growing both rice and soybeans,” he adds.
“It was a good opportunity to get into farming there in 2005, although I’m not sure it would be as good of an investment today,” he says. “Environmental issues are getting difficult there, and we’re facing lots of permitting problems. Opportunities now look better to me here in the U.S. than abroad.”
Jones admits the fun part of all the deal making is building business diversification, and consulting with clients to help them be successful. “That’s where I get my satisfaction. And I’m lucky that I get to work with the top 25% of the farmers in the country. I just plain get a lot of joy out of helping others.”
The hardest part, he admits, is all the decision making. “I do all of our grain marketing and make recommendations to clients. I’m analyzing the market every day and believe that in eight out of 10 years I’ll hit the top third of the markets.”
How does a guy with all these irons in the fire sleep at night? Jones chuckles and says: “I sleep like a baby. I cry for two hours, sleep for two hours, cry for two hours…”
Jones has never had a real job or a regular paycheck – or wanted either. He’s all about making wise business decisions and capitalizing on opportunities. “We have a solid business plan for each enterprise detailing all the risks and rewards before we start,” he says. “Then we fund it with enough capital right from the beginning to qualify for loans.”
Always vigilant for a new opportunity, recently he and his family were on their way to church and saw a for-sale sign on a warehouse in Grinnell, IA. He ended up owning a 64,000-sq.-ft. fully staffed, commercial storage facility. It’s the first non-ag business he’s been involved in.
Of course it’s rare that Jones gets behind the wheel of a tractor anymore. Most of his time is spent behind a desk driving the businesses he’s put together.
“I’m looking at the big picture,” he says. “Too often I think the business and marketing side of farming gets neglected. Farmers are good at driving tractors and growing crops, but they struggle making business decisions.”
As you’d expect, Jones thrives on finding opportunities and gets energized from making decisions. It’s what he’s good at.
Jones’ Top 5 Marketing Tips
Here’s advice from Iowa farmer and consultant Terry Jones on how to be a better marketer.
1. Know your costs and margins. If you don’t know what you need out of the market, how can you market?
2. Know the market you’re in and the tools you have to use to protect your risk. Don’t market on emotions.
3. Have a goal. I like using Return on Assets and Return on Equity and then compare where else I could get better returns for the risks I’m taking.
4. Closely manage the five things that could put you out of business if they go sour.
5. Draw a line in the sand and consider three things before making a trade (cash, futures, forward contracts, etc.). Ask: Why am I doing this today at this price? What is my goal? How do I exit to protect myself?